In this interview we speak with Kari Barba, owner of the Outer Limits Tattoo shops and an artist who is an emblem of the lineages that exist within our community; Kari is one of the living legends carrying knowledge, technique, and tattoo history forward. Kari touches on what it's like to be a tattooer for over 40 years, speaks on the excitement of creating a line of Barba family tattooers, and why Kari thinks young artists should get apprenticeships.
I’d love it if you could talk about the moment you knew tattooing was for you. What did it feel like and did you have any idea of the influence tattoos would have on your life?
I had never talked about or knew much about tattooing when I was young, and didn’t even see my first tattoo until I was 17 years old. I wasn’t sure it was for me until I actually tried it…which was pretty fun and exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. It was such a challenge and so fun. I started wondering if I could possibly make a living at doing tattoos. I was 19 years old at the time, living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a friend of mine, Neil Grant, who was a tattoo artist himself, suggested I try tattooing. By my second tattoo… I knew I wanted to try to make it work.
Can you talk about your style and how it’s developed over time?
When I first started tattooing, I started out by doing Black and Gray Single Needle Realism style. I used to draw a lot and that was the style that I drew in so it seemed most natural to just tattoo the same way. Then people started to ask me to do some color so I started doing the same style but in color… As it was what I knew, Realism or close to Realism then, LOL, it felt more natural to me. Over time the request for different styles and types of tattoos and what people were asking for was changing. I started doing thicker bolder brushstroke lines, some Asian styles, portraits in Black and Gray and in color and this evolved into larger works of art that were somewhat of a mix of Asian styles and Realism. It was just what I enjoy doing… I also have always enjoyed Black and Gray. After about two years into tattooing I was working at Fat George’s Tattoo in La Puente and he suggested I go back to basics and also try Traditional, which I did. The idea was to be able to do anything that people asked for when they came in the door, so I practiced different styles and tried to take on anything that was given my way.
Today, I do more Realism but with a flare of my own so I called it Illustrated Realism because people want a name for styles, even though I don’t really have one. I tried to remain versatile, to bend and be able to flow with whatever the client wishes, combined with my style and techniques. Currently I do mostly Black and Gray and I do a lot of octopi in the style…
What tattooers, films, books, art movements, music, etc. inspire you? Who are your tattoo heroes?
I admire so many tattoo artists and their styles and level of talent that they have that I don’t generally like to mention them. There are so many and so many different amazing artists and styles that it just takes too much time. When I first started tattooing Ed Hardy, who is a huge influence for me, as I feel he was for many women who came into the field. The things that he told me, even the critical ones, helped me to learn the most. I feel that every painting, every book you read and everything in life teaches us and helps us to learn. I can pull inspiration from anything in nature, drawings, photos, books, stories…I feel everything in life teaches us.
You’ve been in the industry for over 40 years...what’s it been like watching the landscape of the community change over time? How do you feel about the future of the tattoo industry? What needs to change and what should stay the same?
Over the years, the tattoo industry has definitely changed since I’ve been tattooing. I’ve been tattooing over 40 years and when I first got into the business, a tattoo artist did what they were asked to do by the client. Most tattoo artists worked in many styles to accommodate the clients. There were just a few artists working in their own style and trying to develop in one direction or two directions. Overtime I feel that many artists, and it’s always some but not all, have developed their tattooing in just one style, some artist tattooing just what they want to do and offering only that. The industry has changed a lot since the addition of and merge from magazines to TV. Some say it’s a bad thing, too many TV shows etc. but in my opinion I feel it has brought awareness to our industry and shown the world that the community of tattoos can be for everyone. Tattoos are not just for a select few but people of all walks of life. It helped people to be more comfortable with tattoos. I do feel that some people do develop a rockstar mentality and have trouble staying grounded once fame is found. The majority of tattoo artists do not do this, the majority of tattoo artists that I know who are extremely well-known are also extremely well balanced and beautiful people.
I’m not sure where the future of tattooing will go, just as back in the days when only the sailors mostly got tattooed and we were doing only Traditional styles, I’m sure they had no idea Realism would come to tattoos. It’s extremely motivating and interesting to me to watch this industry grow and develop into an even more amazing art form every day.
What have been your greatest accomplishments and struggles over the years? How do you define success and do you think artists have a responsibility to the world?
Some of the things that I am most proud of for myself are the awards that I have won; winning Best Tattoo Artist twice and Best Oversees Artist also. I have been a part of the exhibition at the Natural History Museum LA, and asked to tattoo a silicone arm for that exhibition which was an extreme honor. That exhibition called TATTOO, now travels the world and originated at Quai Branly Museum in Paris, France. I am also extremely proud to be on the jury and judging panel at the Mondial du Tatouage hours in Paris, France yearly. I believe this convention to be the largest in the world, as far as I’m aware, and it has an extremely talented group of tattoo artists that attend and compete yearly. I look forward to going every single year.
I’m also very excited and proud of the fact that my son followed in my footsteps. Jeremiah has been tattooing, I’m guessing now about 25 years at this point, and the possibility of his daughter, my granddaughter, coming behind him is quite exciting. I am excited and honored to have had so many years and had amazing talent work alongside me at my shops.
Defining success is difficult as we all have a different version of what that means to us. Some strive for money, some strive for fame. Some strive to do the best tattoo that they can… We do have a responsibility to the world of tattooing and to our clients to do the best job that we can. Success to me is to not only to do that but to have a happy crew, happy clients, and a happy family. Peace in life…
What is your advice to young tattooers looking to find their style? What do you think about tattooers, now, shunning the traditional apprenticeship and learning on their own?
Today, many artists do not receive a professional apprenticeship, but do just try learning on their own. And for many this works but I personally believe, and I speak from personal experience, that an apprenticeship saves time, years in time. Receiving an apprenticeship teaches you the shortcuts, teaches you the things you struggle to find out over the years and keeps you from making many mistakes. I personally did not have an apprenticeship but I encourage others to do so. I believe it’s the proper investment and route at this time.
Do you have any projects, events, or plans in the future you’d like to share?
Currently, we in California are still not able to tattoo due to COVID-19 pandemic. I was supposed to judge again at Mondial du Tatouage in Paris in October, as it was delayed due to the pandemic from the original date. I’m not sure that anyone from the United States will be able to attend but we are hopeful. At this point, I just wish to get back to work. Although, I have been doing many paintings, 10 so far during this pandemic. I have found a new love for painting and hope to continue to paint and grow that side of my artistic life also.